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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Attorney calls Taser use ‘sadistic’

January 18, 2012
Katherine Heerbrandt, Gazette.net

A Frederick County sheriff’s deputy acted in a “sadistic” manner four years ago when he hit a 20-year-old man twice with a Taser, the attorney for the man’s family told a federal jury Tuesday.

That man, Jarrel Gray, died soon after, and his family is seeking $145 million in damages in a wrongful death lawsuit that began Tuesday in federal court in Baltimore.

In his opening statement, attorney Gregory Lattimer told the jury that Cpl. Rudy Torres of the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office used excessive force in the events surrounding the death of Gray on Nov. 18, 2007.

Gray’s family is claiming wrongful death, excessive use of force, and battery on the part of the now-retired Torres.

“You will determine if the initial tasing was appropriate and if the second tasking was appropriate under the circumstances, and render a decision based on your answers,” Lattimer told the jury. “We are convinced you will agree that shouldn’t have happened.”

Torres’ attorney, Daniel Karp, outlined a different scenario of how and why Torres used the Taser on Gray, and said the deputy was following procedure when he shot Gray with the stun gun to force him to get on the ground and show his hands.

“We will show that a reasonable and well-trained officer could not appreciate the fact that the use of the Taser might cause serious injury or death,” Karp said.

Torres responded to a dispatcher’s calls about fighting near Gresham Court, on the western side of Frederick, in the early morning hours of Nov. 18, 2007.

While Lattimer characterized the altercation between Gray and a friend as “acting the fool, like young people do,” Karp painted a more serious picture of the fight between two young men that prompted neighbors to call 911.

When Torres responded, he saw three young men on the sidewalk, and a woman in a car. When he demanded they show their hands and get down on the ground, two complied, while Gray turned his back, then turned around with his hands in his pants, both lawyers said in their opening statements.

Karp told the jury that all the men were “verbally resistant.” Torres shot Gray in the chest with the Taser, and he fell to the ground, with his hands pinned under him. When he did not show his hands, Torres delivered the second shot.

“That doesn’t mean he had something in his hands. It may mean he’s stupid or it may mean he’s drunk … but he continued to be a threat to the deputy,” Karp said.

Witnesses for the Gray family will testify that Gray’s hands were by his side, Lattimer said.

Lattimer told the jury that Torres delivered the second shot while Gray was on the ground unconscious, and did nothing to help him. Karp disputed the allegation, and said Torres did “nothing wrong.”

“And even if he did, he did not cause this young man’s death,” Karp said.

Torres allegedly used the Taser a second time on Gray because he would not show the deputy his hands while on the ground after the first shot. The state medical examiner, scheduled to testify later this week, named the cause of death “undetermined” and noted that a Taser had been used.

The medical examiner found nothing abnormal during the autopsy, Karp told the jury, but that Gray’s blood-alcohol level was .23, a level he said is “consistent with binge drinking.”

Maryland state law considers a person with a blood-alcohol level of .08 as too drunk to drive.

“That young man didn’t deserve to die because, at 20 years old, he had too much to drink,” Lattimer said.

The Gray family is seeking $145 million in damages against Frederick County, the Sheriff’s Office and Torres, and amount Lattimer said in an interview was set to “indicate the seriousness of the suit.” The jury can determine a specific award if it finds in favor of the Gray family.

The Sheriff’s Office and Frederick County were split from the original suit, which can be revisited later.

County attorney John Mathias said the reason for splitting the suit is that the liability of Frederick County and the Sheriff’s Office only comes into play if it can be determined Torres did not receive proper training in the use of Tasers. Mathias said the chances of that are “slim.”

Sheriff Chuck Jenkins (R) was in the courtroom, but had to leave when Lattimer told Karp he wanted to put Jenkins on the witness stand during the trial. Attorneys said the trial will likely last this week and perhaps into the next.

A Frederick County grand jury found no criminal wrongdoing in the death of Gray.

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